Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has remained in the news in the weeks following his 2019 Nobel Peace Prize—but not for the reasons you’d expect. An estimated 86 people have died in violence sparked by an alleged assassination attempt against a prominent political opposition leader. This tragedy is symptomatic of Ethiopia’s fragile transition and demonstrates the urgency for Dr. Abiy to focus his energies at home to deliver a peaceful transition for the 105 million Ethiopians counting on his leadership.
Abiy is in many ways a leader out of step with the times. While a growing number of countries are turning inward—closing civic space and tolerating systemic corruption—Abiy steered Ethiopia in the opposite direction.
In his first 100 days, Abiy made changes comparable in scale to the reforms in Eastern Europe after 1989. On the domestic front, he lifted a state of emergency, freed political prisoners, ended media censorship, legalized opposition groups, dismissed military and civilian leaders suspected of corruption, and appointed a gender-balanced cabinet.
Abiy’s approach to foreign affairs has been just as much of a break from the past. After two decades of “frozen war” with Ethiopia’s much smaller neighbor Eritrea, Abiy quickly signed a peace agreement that accepted the borders set by the United Nations almost 20 years earlier. He also reversed Ethiopia’s historically contentious position by accepting the ruling of the independent boundary commission, which designated the town of Badme as part of Eritrea. This historic milestone reunited families and fueled optimism that the once-warring countries would soon cooperate to their mutual benefit.
So, it’s no surprise that Abiy, 43, won this year’s Nobel Peace Prize for fostering peace and democracy in a long-troubled region.
But the Nobel Prize Committee’s pick was not just a salute to past achievement. It also set an important and timely expectation that Abiy will exert the continued leadership and courage necessary to shepherd Africa’s second most populous country through a fragile, complex transition. On both the peace and democracy fronts, the young prime minister’s work—impressive as it may be—has really just begun. Meaningful political change does not flow automatically from the initiation of reforms. Communal violence is not halted by rhetoric of love and togetherness. Peace does not come with one handshake.
A Fragile Peace
The peace deal with Eritrea has already fallen short of expectations. After a brutal war from the 1970’s to 1990’s that killed an estimated 100,000 people and displaced untold thousands, Ethiopia and Eritrea settled into an armed stalemate.
To consolidate the potential for peace, broader institutional relationships are needed between the two countries. Mechanisms—like a “red phone,” back-channels, and regular engagements at the ministerial and working levels—have proven in other circumstances to effectively manage conflict and disagreements when they arise. The two countries cannot continually rely solely on their leaders’ personal relationship. The risks of highly personalized relationships are not theoretical. Ethiopia’s previous prime minister also had a strong personal relationship with Eritrean leader Isaias Afwerki. When things soured, there was little that could restrain the war.
Sustained peace between the two countries also depends on the ability and willingness of both leaders to foster reforms at home. In the initial months after the border was opened, renewed family contact and bilateral trade offered a glimpse of positive potential, but also revealed the stark challenges that remained for two countries who are advancing from vastly different starting points.
Focusing on the Domestic Front
Inside Ethiopia, there is no denying that Abiy has taken the helm of a deeply fragile nation. Ethiopia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world at 2.9 million; with 522,000 people driven from their homes in the first six months of 2019 alone as a result of communal violence. Its economy, though growing consistently, is still unable to create enough jobs for a burgeoning youth population.
At the political level, a new social contract that can unite the nation in line with the vision that Abiy has set out has yet to be forged—and there isn’t an agreed-upon roadmap to get the country through this challenging transition. Addressing this will not be easy. Negotiating a roadmap would force conversations on deeply polarizing issues, and the forums for reaching political consensus that were built under the one-party, ethnic federal system are no longer fit-for-purpose. Nevertheless, last week’s violence warns that avoiding difficult conversations and leaving decisions to make themselves can be equally risky.
Surmounting these challenges will require the kind of diplomacy and leadership that Abiy demonstrated in his first 100 days in office last year. Indeed, Abiy’s most important contribution to peace in the region would be to focus internally and foster an inclusive political agreement on how to take the country forward. That includes concentrating on next year’s general elections and seeking a pact among the diverse political, ethnic, religious population about how the country will be governed. Amid an uncertain transition and a new culture of political competition, a negotiated roadmap can provide some predictability and shared basis to move forward.
Managing the transition likewise will demand focus, reasonable policy, and strong and informed leadership to carefully balance external partners and interests. Leaders with good instincts, as Abiy demonstrated early on, must also be capably advised by experienced Ethiopian experts to set and operationalize priorities in the dynamic months ahead.
Ethiopia has strategic partnerships with the U.S. and China. Abiy will have to ensure that his country benefits from both and avoids becoming a chess piece in the two countries increasingly focused global power competition. The same can be said of Ethiopia’s relationship with neighbors across the Red Sea. The infusion of $1 billion from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia provided critical fiscal stabilization following the rapprochement with Eritrea, but ensuring that continued investment and engagement contributes to unity, not divisions, will require careful navigation, particularly to avoid getting caught up in the rift among the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
No doubt, it will be tempting for the newly minted Nobel Prize Winner to take on new roles to solve problems in the region or globally. International partners may be equally tempted to fill his schedule with speaking engagements or seek his help to resolve disputes elsewhere. But that would be a mistake. Instead, if Abiy can successfully shape an accepted new national agenda, no one will question the reasoning for handing the young leader his Nobel Prize so soon.